I recently attended a symposium in Singapore on “Creative Cities, Creative Minds”.
Artists, designers and others discussed creativity in Hong Kong and that city.
After a discussion, we had a Q&A session.
A person from China made a very interesting point about Hong Kong’s appeal to mainland travelers.
He said the first-tier and second-tier Chinese tourists today do not see Hong Kong as a desirable destination.
Third- and fourth-tier ones do, but all they are interested in is shopping.
The upper tiers of tourist, he said, have many other options, like Europe and America.
He had a very good point.
In fact, recent statistics show that wealthier mainlanders are going to places like the Antarctic.
Travel for wealthier and more sophisticated people – from all nations – is about intellectual or personal enrichment, adventure and experience.
There can also be an element of status involved.
This represents a challenge for Hong Kong, and indeed for Singapore.
Hong Kong’s latest tourism and retail figures reflect this.
According to recent reports, average daily hotel rates have been falling for nine months.
Year-on-year retail sales for various luxury items fell in four of the first five months of this year.
Some big names in fashion and jewelry are talking about reducing the number of their stores here.
The tourism board expects growth in mainland tourist numbers to be flat at most, and maybe as low as negative 8 percent.
Some of the slowdown is due to the austerity drive in the mainland and cuts in tax rates on imports in the mainland.
But there seem to be several other trends.
Even shoppers like variety – after they try and maybe enjoy Hong Kong, they want to explore other places, like Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok and elsewhere.
And, like the mainlander at the symposium said, high-end travelers want more than shops.
Singapore is also feeling the pitch, although it is on a different scale.
Tourist numbers there last year were 15 million – a quarter of Hong Kong’s record 60 million.
The number of visitors to Singapore for the first three months of the year fell 6 percent to 3.4 million, and visitors from mainland China declined as well.
Hong Kong’s retail sector and tourism board see falling numbers of mainland shoppers as a bad thing.
But if you look at the comments section in online newspapers, you find that many Hongkongers welcome a drop in tourists.
Complaints about the large numbers of tourists are well-known: the visitors create overcrowding, shops catering to local people close, and rents go up.
Many people assume that tourism must make an important contribution to our economy because there is so much of it.
However, some claim that it displaces other economic activities and imposes hidden costs.
In other words, the net benefits are not great or do not spread out much among the community.
This is a debate for economists, and it would be good to have some serious research into it.
But it will make little difference if large-scale “shopping tourism” is going to decline anyway.
How can we compete for high-end tourists with New York, London or Paris?
The idea that we need new attractions may be wrong.
Tourists go to New York for Broadway shows, the Empire State Building, Central Park, Italian and Jewish delis – none of which were designed for tourists only.
In London or Paris, they go for architecture, history, museums and maybe music or theater – again, none of this was created as “attractions” for foreigners only.
At the “Creative Cities” symposium, somebody joked that Singapore’s best-known tourist attraction today seems to be the casino.
In Hong Kong, maybe it is Disneyland.
High-end travelers in both cities would be more interested in the street food, the traditional markets, what is left of the built heritage and – in Hong Kong – some truly stunning, accessible country trails.
And, hopefully, they will come for the cultural and creative scenes our own local artists, chefs and designers develop in the years to come.
In short, we do not have to cling to the old shopping paradise image.
Tourism in future needs to be less focused on visitor numbers and malls and more about encouraging and sharing authentic Hong Kong experiences.
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